When I was recruited to take the helm at Ehlers Estate in 2008, I entered a great situation in more ways than one: I was coming to an A+ quality Cabernet estate that had been certified organic for almost a year and biodynamically farmed for almost four years; the owners and I shared a common vision and values in our approach to farming; and the nonprofit trust that owns Ehlers Estate, The Leducq Foundation, supports international cardiovascular research, which meant everything Ehlers did was consistent with healthy practices and promoting well-being.
Converting to organic farming was important to the winery’s owners, but credit goes to Ehlers’ previous winemaker, Rudy Zuidema, for truly getting it started, cleaning up the land and initiating a commitment to biodynamic farming. It was never about marketing at Ehlers; it was about building a sustainable farm system, working toward healthier land, contributing to a healthier planet and increasing wine quality.
How’s the wine?
I’m often asked about the “marketing advantages” of making vineyards organic or biodynamic. Invariably, someone gets around to the quintessential question: Does it make better wine? Of course it does—not because it’s certified organic, but because organic and biodynamic farming is being used. By ridding the vineyards of chemicals, pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers, and by building healthy soil on the vineyard floor and in the grapevine root zone, we grow stronger, healthier and more balanced vines, which, along with great terroir, gives us better wine.
We find organic and biodynamic farming practices cost us about 25 to 30 percent more than nonorganic, more industrial approaches. Much of this is because we need to have more people in the vineyard more often. But this is a good thing: People have eyes, ears, noses and sensitivity; they can see, identify and react to problems very quickly. I find a direct correlation between man-hours in the vineyard and wine quality. Yes, there are added costs—but what of the unseen costs to society, the planet and human health by not doing it? Hopefully, we’re avoiding the much greater costs of letting the land degrade, rather than improve, over the years.
In addition to working with biodynamic preparations, we put a lot of effort toward managing cover crops and compost. Compost isn’t for under-the-vine application; it’s for the entire vineyard floor. We plant a mixture of grasses, legumes, mustards and clovers, and we feed these winter cover crops with compost so they’ll thrive and contribute to the development of richer land around and between the vines, with more humus (dark, organic material in the soil that’s produced by the decomposition of vegetable and animal matter), more bioactivity and greater porosity (the extent to which air and water can move through soil). Through all of this, we’re creating a nutrient-rich soil composition and structure that’s able to transport water and air in and out, vertically and horizontally.
In the spring, before the cover crops go to seed, we mow, disc and till with the goal of turning as much of the organic matter into the soil as quickly as possible, so the decomposition happens under and not on the surface. The nitrogen fixed by the cover crops, the plant biomass and the accompanying moisture is all directed down into the soil, and the natural composting is well underway while the vines are still dormant. By timing all these operations correctly, the nutrients are in an available form as soon as the sap starts to rise and the vines start to grow. We want the vine roots to spread outward and downward as much as possible. The greater the spread of the roots, the more terroir the vines occupy and the more distinctive the wines.
A self-contained organism
Just about all our land is for grapes, but as I started looking closer at our property, I realized we had a lot of room to expand our vegetable gardens, create some orchards and sow areas for insectaries. We have riparian corridors (plant communities consisting of vegetation growing near a natural body of water), and we even have a little bit of forest in the back. We’re now starting to develop all those morsels of opportunity that we’ve been walking past every day on our way to the vineyard. There are several wineries in California that have the land and the desire to expand—they’re doing amazing things with the diversification of their production, even growing enough ancillary crops to supply restaurants and CSA customers. We just have a little bit of land, so we’re able to employ a little bit of diversification.
Why biodynamic farming?
For me, biodynamic farming is about the journey. This land was here, in grapes, long before I was born, and it’s going to be here long after I’m gone. I’m asking this ranch to give me three tons of grapes per acre every year. How am I going to take that much fruit and still be sustainable for the next 100 years? What am I giving in return? Am I doing everything I possibly can to ensure maximum quality and productivity for each ensuing vintage while still providing for even greater fertility in the long term?
Biodynamic farming is a good start toward discovering the answers to those questions. We work with the cycles of nature and try to be sensitive to all the energies and life forces around us. We give back to the land. We try to acknowledge what the vines need and create sustainable solutions. It’s different from feeding them out of a bag. We encourage predatory insects, and then we don’t need to consider pesticides. We practice green manuring—growing a cover crop that’s plowed under in the spring to nourish the soil—so we don’t need synthetic fertilizers. And while I’m not in the business of defending the specific biodynamic practices or measuring the results with any scientific rigor, I know our land and our vines are healthier because of it. The hard work of biodynamic farming is the “farming” part, and that’s where it’s the same for all winegrowers. The “biodynamic” part is just the road that we at Ehlers Estate have decided is the right path for us…and we’re enjoying the results.
Kevin Morrisey is winemaker and general manager at Ehlers Estate in St. Helena. You can reach him at email@example.com. For more information, visit www.ehlersestate.com.
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